The myths that masked an imperialist war in Vietnam -- and how they were shaped

Review: The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory, edited by Mark Pavlick and Caroline Luft  (Haymarket Books, 2019)

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory is an extremely useful book for those of us who were, in effect, too close to events to get a step-back perspective – and it joins a well-known shelf-ful of similar books on the war, including its first edition (2008-9) under a different title.

The book touches on not only the deliberate demolition of Vietnamese society – economy, culture and engagement with the land itself – but on other related outrages ranging from not only the lethal sideshows in Laos and Cambodia but slightly earlier parallels in post-WW2 Indonesia, where US and Aussie meddling very nearly turned still another nationalist self-determination movement into a mortal enemy in an unequal struggle.

As much to the point, the contributions from Noam Chomsky, one of the war’s strongest and most persuasive critics, answer the harder question – how did the people of the US, and yes, how did many of us in uniform, stay numb to the raw wrongness of the war when it should have been clear from the start who benefited from waging it? Good old corporate capitalism and its mirror images and enablers in the US government most benefited. The “propaganda model” Chomsky and his co-author Edward Herman developed shows how the information fog was created and maintained that helped the war’s real causes, as well as many other afflictions of our lives, stay well behind the curtain.

Pavlick and Luft’s book provides through various authors particular features of the war that emerged from deliberate obscurity after it was over, both individual atrocities and the dismal statistical tale of its costs to the people on the ground from Dienbienphu to the last helicopter liftoff from the embassy roof. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “propaganda model” is tested and validated in their chapters on the war’s well-cloaked, savage path through two decades of US history and helps us better understand and respond to the book’s other chapters.

The focus in some of the book’s chapters is on specific atrocities, like the growth of defoliation by 2-4-D or “Agent Orange,” a tactic much favored by the first puppet president, Diem. It is still devastating our brother and sister vets today as well as having permanently poisoned the land and people our policy left behind.

The moonscape of UXO, or unexploded ordinance, left behind in Laos and Cambodia to this day creates new need for artificial limbs on an almost industrial scale each year, as Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell outline with harrowing statistics. In the nine years leading up to 1973, 2.1 million tons of ordinance were dropped just on Laos, including cluster bombs. Hidden bombs explode every year. In 2008, 302 killed and injured and in 2017, still 41 – because most of the land in Laos that is best for growing crops is also the part most polluted with UXO.

Fred Branfman, an aid and NGO worker turned advocate, spent a good deal of time in Laos witnessing the bombing as it happened, and his testimony is detailed and harrowing. US officials eventually expelled him because he helped reporters expose the carnage. But the stories he sourced were accurate – and damning.

Why were those stories always on the fringe of public consciousness, quick to fade away? As Richard Falk says in his introduction to this book, “the wartime fates of Laos and Cambodia have been deleted unforgivably from the collective political memory of America,” something Branfman and others attempt to remedy in this book.

In 1988, more than a decade after Chomsky wrote the articles that appear in this book on Vietnam, he and Herman published Manufacturing Consent, a book in which they outlined a “propaganda model” designed to keep the public information sphere favoring the official version of events. Chapters of Manufacturing Consent in which the Vietnam war was the case study illustrated how elites and their enablers in the mainstream media muffled the full scope of the conflict and the shadowy motives and forces that kept this obviously terrible foreign-intervention project going.

As Gareth Porter relates in his chapter on My Lai and Lai Ke, the elite-managed narrative was that “the command of basic US combat units in Vietnam had fallen into the hands of the uneducated lower class” rather than, as Porter details, “the result of a deliberate policy adopted at the highest level of the Department of Defense to treat the civilian population of hamlets and villages… not as noncombatants but as part of the enemy structure… and therefore fair game for the US war machine.” (86)

Porter’s meticulous account of how the Pentagon-appointed Peers Commission on My Lai exonerated higher-ups all the way to Westmoreland – and McNamara -- shows that US military officials’ noble pronouncements about sparing noncombatants had a glaring exception that the investigators looked away from --  “free-fire zones” where the government lacked control, so civilian noncombatants were considered enemy forces. That was more than half the country. Lt. William L. Calley Jr. was, indeed, “following orders.” And Gen. Peers, who was hoping for a fourth star from Westmoreland, took care of the official cleanup, an essential element of the propaganda model.

Porter’s account shows how careful archival reporting can produce truths that evade the propaganda model.

As is clear from Chomsky and Herman’s account, the “propaganda model” they describe is observed academically at a distance; it’s unlikely any US official thought of it in that way. What mattered to officials was making sure the narratives that emerged from Vietnam made the US look noble, good, well-intentioned and so forth – despite the patently humiliating outcome. That’s how the propaganda model is put in place. The routine practices of blame-shifting and motive-polishing use the model to give shape to the myths.

Chomsky and Herman’s model tests well in their account of “bloodbaths,” which contrasted the real assault on the civilian population in episodes like 1969’s Operation Speedy Express in the Delta as well as the Phoenix program’s slow-motion slaughter of alleged VC operatives with the alleged bloodbaths perpetrated by the other side in the North’s 1954-59 land reform program and “massacre” of civilians in Hue as the US and ARVN forces reclaimed the capital city after Tet 1968. Official media handouts ignored the US bloodbaths but hyped the alleged ones of the “other side.”

All this was of course the mottled and disturbed surface beneath which some persistent policy themes ran more or less smoothly – if finally unsuccessfully, tragically so. Starting from the decision to support the French colonials before and after their crushing 1964 defeat at Dienbienphu, “the United States committed itself with its eyes open and with full knowledge of what it was doing to crush the nationalist forces of Indochina,” Chomsky declared. In two articles and a 2008 interview, he traces the post -WW2 policy, driven by corporate goals of commercial dominance and resource control in South and East Asia.  And once the US had engineered the breach of the 1954 promise to unite the two Vietnams with an election, “For propaganda purposes, our goal was reformulated. It was our noble task to protect Indochina from ‘aggression.’ “

The fact that these myths, these narratives are still surfacing and keeping their traction in instances of mass mis-recollection like Ken Burns’s recent PBS series is a credit to the propaganda model.

This book is not a history – that is, not a timeline. It singles out incidents and practices that try to justify the overall narrative/myth that a well-meaning attempt to preserve freedom for a besieged people went terribly wrong through no fault of our own. We were all victims of that myth and are still struggling with it.

This review first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Veteran, publication of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

NOTE there will be a launch event for this book Nov. 6, co-sponsored by IPS, at George Washington University (details in Allies calendar). Originally published 2009 as U.S. War Crimes in Indochina: History, Responsibility and the American Future ISBN-10: 1608463230 by Common Courage Press -- 2nd edition published 2019 as The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory ISBN: 9781608463237

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